Saturday, June 03, 2006

Is Milton funny?

This past spring I taught both a Milton seminar and two sections of Brit Lit I, which at Big Urban concludes with selections from Paradise Lost (I do more than most instructors: all of books 1-4 and 9-10). Because I'm a dork but especially because I'm a masochist, I decided that it would be fun to come in on a Saturday--a week before the end of term--and stage a marathon reading of Paradise Lost and encourage the students from those three classes to come, promising them extra credit if they stayed and participated for a set minimum period of time. It went beautifully: my Milton students loved it and even many of my survey students professed to have enjoyed the experience and to have been inspired to read the rest of the poem.

But the first class period after that reading one of my smartest survey students interrupted our discussion to say, "I'm just wondering: is Milton funny?"

Uh, I said. Well. Milton's not typically thought of as a witty writer, no--not in the way that Donne or Herrick is. . . why do you ask?

"Because during the reading on Saturday, you and that guy next to you [George Washington Boyfriend] kept laughing, but I didn't really see what was funny. And reading this at home, I still don't see it. It's complicated and really interesting. . . but I don't think I ever laughed while I was reading it. I believe that it's funny, since you seem to think it is, but I'm not getting the joke."

I stammered for a minute, came up with a few mildly funny moments, and then deferred to the rest of the class: did anyone else find the poem funny? One student admitted that she did, and that she'd written in the margin things like "LOL" or "psyche!" at moments when Satan was clearly fooling himself, so I seized eagerly on this and talked about the dramatic irony produced by what we and the narrative voice know about the fall and redemption, and the characters' more limited perspective, and blah blah blah, and class went on.

However, I was bothered by this conversation for days afterwards. Because the thing is, I really do think that Milton is pretty hilarious, and I always have--back in college, HK and I both covered our copies of Complete Poems and Major Prose with marginalia much like my second student's (e.g., in Book 1: "So God was stronger. Who knew?").

But with the exception of Milton's often viciously funny prose tracts and the amusing spectacle of Satan's hubris, much of what I find funny is material that I'm not at all certain is intended to be funny. I crack up at the conversations between God and the Son, and between Satan and Sin and Death; I'm amused by some of the narrator's aggrandizing claims; and lots of little things--the elephant waggling "His Lithe Proboscis"; the image of the serpent moving in an upward, springlike motion before the fall--similarly make me smile.

So okay: I think that Milton is awfully wacky, and I think that I do a good job of conveying my own sense of delight and wonder at his wackiness to my students. This is useful in the classroom, when so much time is necessarily devoted to historical, political, and theological back-fill. But isn't there something . . . condescending about reading an author this way? Sure, Milton's claim that Jesus's statement that anyone who divorces and remarries is committing adultery actually isn't a condemnation of divorce--not at all! the Bible clearly permits divorce!--seems to defy logic, but is it appropriate to shake one's head and laugh at this?

I probably wouldn't still be mulling this over if I hadn't, in fact, been accused of being disrespectful of Milton (especially of Milton, although the charge has been made about some of my work on other writers) by certain scholars. Granted, these have all been scholars of a certain vintage--all much older white men--and I don't really respect the grounds on which these charges have been made (the first reader of one of my articles began his 13-page, single-spaced review with a lecture on how important a figure Milton was; how I clearly didn't realize his stature; and how "we should be leery of taking pot-shots at dead authors who can't defend themselves, lest we discourage future generations from reading them"), but I do wonder whether there's a tiny bit of truth there. When I describe Milton as "wacky," am I not, in effect, patting him on the head, bringing him down to size--and consequently building up myself and my authority?

I'd like to think that my amusement at the material I work on (right now I'm reading some of King James's political writings, and I keep laughing out loud) is a good thing--just a bit of scholarly dorkiness and enthusiasm, and something that doesn't necessarily diminish the carefulness or the quality of my work--but now I have this nagging doubt.

What do you think? Has anyone else had these concerns?


meg said...

I get accused of irreverence fairly often. But irreverence != disrespect, and possibly far from it.

Reverence is an impediment to critical thinking, while respect is a product of it.

I have another Milton question for you: I teach Brit Lit I every fall, concluding with Milton. Heretofore, I have used Book 12 of *PL* (Stanley Fish's favorite book!), but I'm wondering if there is another portion that would work better. We really only have two classes to devote to His Wackiness. Any suggestions?

Hilaire said...

Very interesting post. It doesn't strike me that finding Milton wacky is condescending. To me, it sounds like a reflection of your distance from him and the world/worldviews he writes about. That's unavoidable, isn't it? And that's also probably what makes people uncomfortable about what they call your irreverence - possibly they like to cultivate the belief that they "get" his world perfectly. Your way seems "better" - honest about your position/location in relation to the work.

Anonymous said...

I am just concerned that, in this day and age, your students are still using "psyche!"


Boy From Oz said...

When I teach 'The Unfortunate Traveller' (occasionally), I run into problems because, in my attempts to explain to students why the torture of Cutwolfe would have been funny for early modern readers ('Old excellent he was at a bone-ache'), I tend to convince them that I find slow sadistic death rather hilarious myself. I must confess that the wackiness of Milton leaves me sad rather than amused, but I'll try again.

Flavia said...

Meg: actually, I'd teach just about any book other than Book 12, which, aside from the last 25-30 lines, isn't especially interesting to undergrads. Personally, I'd go with Book 9, and then perhaps read aloud and riff on the very end of Book 12 (which is what I do in my survey, since we don't read Book 12). It's a nice way to end the semester, too.

Boy from Oz: welcome! I admit that I like to talk about Early Modern torture & death every now and again--the best day of the semester is always the one where I explain drawing and quartering, and watch my students try to process that this era that they tend to think of as one of the pinnacles of western culture (hey: Shakespeare lived then!) was also one of public brandings, slow executions, and heads left to rot on pikes for months.

Simplicius said...

Your reader sounds like an unimaginably pompous ass. Wow. That must have been some argument you were making if it actually had the potential to discourage "future generations" (notice the plural) from reading Milton.

A few thoughts: Is there any chance that this tendency is particularly prevalent among Miltonists? The ones I've known have tended to treat Milton much more seriously and reverentially than, say, Shakespeareans do Shakespeare. Plus, there's that whole secret society of Milton scholars that is invitation-only, which, from what I've heard (I'm obviously not a member), is kind of dedicated to expounding and preserving the greatness of Milton (for future generations, no doubt).

And as for teaching...if you can make Milton funny and have students treat him not only as an amazing writer but also as a guy who penned some decidedly unusual arguments and created some very wacky images, then I imagine the course would be a rousing success. There's a lot to be said for bringing authors down off their pedestals and putting them back among us mere mortals. I'm not convinced that doing so means that you're unfairly building up your own authority at his expense; in fact, I can see how it would make students more interested in Milton because they'd be better able to see why you're so enthusiastic about him. I mean, I now kind of want you to write an article on why Milton is funny. (Actually I want you to write a blog post on the funny parts in Milton, but I can see why you might want to do work that advances your career.)

Sfrajett said...

It strikes me that this is a tedious status thing. Once you are "somebody" enough, which means you take yourself so seriously that everyone else gets swept up in it, which means the boys respect you even though you are a girl and the full Professors let you into their club, THEN you're allowed to find things funny. But by then you won't, if you go their route. Yet some of the most respected scholars and writers are the most irreverent. Gayatry Spivak used to be irreverent. As you point out, Shakespearians are irreverent. Virginia Woolf was quite irreverent. Jeez, you're in good company. Maybe you have a brain.

bdh said...

I had a similar moment with my students when discussing Webster's Duchess of Malfi. I think some of the most horrific scenes of torture and death are hilarious (e.g. the strangulation of Cariola) and while I'm convinced that some of the original Jacobean audience laughed (perhaps uncomfortably, or with a little bit of vomit in the back of their throats), I did have to convince my students that it *was* funny. Only after an impromptu staged reading did some of them start to admit that "here's your wedding ring" is potentially hilarious...

Flavia said...

Simplicius: I think that you're right on about Miltonists; for whatever reason, there does seem to be a much stronger cult of the author for Milton than for Shakespeare, and it's such a shame. There's also much more pedanticism among Miltonists. I have an acquaintance who submitted an abstract for a paper on one of Milton's sonnets, which was accepted but with the snarky observation that "Dr. So-and-So has failed to mention that this is Milton's only tailed sonnet." His response was, basically, "Dude, I'm aware of that. But it didn't seem like the most important thing to mention in a 200-word abstract."

(And given that my own reviewer, in addition to writing 13 single-spaced pages of comments, decided that his review was an appropriate place to start lecturing me on the Vietnam War, I don't think that his objections to my arguments had much to do with how controversial they were--clearly, he'd received some special version of my essay that bore no relation to what I'd actually written.)

Hieronimo said...

clearly, he'd received some special version of my essay that bore no relation to what I'd actually written.

Ah yes, the Post Office seems to deliver those fairly often to readers for journals.

J. Dryden said...

The cult that surrounds Milton is, I think, one born of a completely inaccurate reading of Who He Was. We think Milton and the image of the dour Puritanical polemicist pops up--how could *he* have a sense of humor. But of course he did. Satan is *funny*--*and* sad. Brilliant characterization of the self-deluded waking up to his delusion, and responding by becoming even *more* willfully self-deluded. That's *funny.* *And* it makes you want to weep.

Hell, God talking to the Son--indeed, God talking to *anyone* is *funny*, because God is the completely unblinking glare of Truth, and next to Him, everyone seems feeble or silly, and God doesn't deign to react to the fact that everyone is bumbling all over themselves in his presence--but you know He's laughing--as he does when Adam asks for a mate. The scene where God informs the Heavenly Host that Man will fall, unless one of them volunteers to sacrifice himself, and all these angels--the Good Guys, mind you--cough and look around and check their watches and don't make eye-contact--oh yes, that is *very* funny indeed.

The problem is that Milton's humor is often *dark* (pardon the blindness-related pun); he's wacky in the sense that he seems to revel in just how perverse this world can be/seem--but then, given that he'd devoted his whole life to a faith and a cause and got, as a reward, blindness, imprisonment, and penury--it's hard not to see why he wouldn't be just a *wee* bit cranky. (Hell, I rail against the injustice of the universe when I get a parking ticket.) But funny? Absolutely. Milton understood that the tragic is, glanced askew, really funny: "I know you're omnipotent and all-knowing, but I still think that you're wrong and I'm right." What?! What?! Funny. But that's the brilliance of him, isn't it? I mean, isn't that why we list him with Shakespeare and Chaucer as The Big Three? Because he can do it all, and so well? Answer: yes, yes it is. And recognizing that isn't being irreverent--it's appreciating the man's *genius*...

Terminaldegree said...

I am not at all qualified to discuss the humor in Milton. But I find humor in my own subject all the time, and I'm quite irreverent to the great composers, to living musicians, to the great performers, etc. My students often wonder if they should laugh or be horrified. But it keeps things fun, and my students seem to appreciate that. (Especially when we throw books out the window.)

Cats & Dogma said...

I don't teach Milton either (Brit Lit II is my bag), but my students repeatedly mention on evals how I make "stuffy old writers"seem interesting, precisely because I am not terribly reverent with them--for example, I adore pointing out how pompous and self-aggrandizing both Shelley's and Wordsworth's notions of th THE POET are.

I think that once students can imagine these authors as human (and not merely the object of scholarly hagiography), they are more willing to grapple with the ideas that are there--that is, if it's ok to imagine them as fallible, they somehow seem more interesting.

So to me, laughing at the funny bits (or the naughty bits, or the ironic bits) makes for better pesagogy, not worse.